Two underdog challengers face the formidable task of defeating a generally popular incumbent who is running an aggressive, well-financed campaign in the 1st City Council District.
Councilman Mike Hernandez captured 65% of the vote 19 months ago to fill the seat vacated by Gloria Molina when she moved to the County Board of Supervisors.
Hernandez, a Latino activist who grew up in the district he represents, has raised more than $100,000--about 14 times the total of both opponents.
Hernandez, a former Occidental College basketball player, is using his funds to finance a full-court-press campaign. It includes opinion polling, targeted mass mailings and door-to-door canvassing by volunteers.
"It's my opponents' challenge to overcome me," Hernandez said.
The two challengers--Jean-Marie Durand and Esther Castillo Long--insist that their shoestring campaigns can propel them into a June runoff.
Long, a lifelong resident of Lincoln Heights and previously an aide to former Councilman Art Snyder and Mayor Tom Bradley, said she is seeking the office because Hernandez has ignored the needs of his constituents.
She hopes to capitalize on criticism of the incumbent by some northeast Los Angeles business owners and others who contend that he has done little to fight graffiti and gang activity.
"There's been a lot of complaints that the district has deteriorated badly in the last two years," she said.
Durand compares his candidacy to last year's presidential bid by maverick businessman Ross Perot, saying that his supporters urged him to run. Durand, who owns a photo studio in Highland Park, said he would work to persuade banks to provide more capital to the district's struggling businesses.
"We've got to focus on the small businesses," he said, "because if they collapse, we all fall."
Durand says he would serve only one term if elected. Hernandez has vowed to seek only two four-year terms. He will have no choice if voters approve either of two term limit measures on the ballot.
A fourth hopeful, county personnel analyst Juventino Gomez of Cypress Park, is running a write-in campaign.
In his 19 months in office, Hernandez has earned mixed reviews. Many constituents applaud his sincerity and willingness to work with neighborhood groups on crime, land use and environmental concerns.
"The community had never been taken into consideration, but he has helped us speak out for the good of the community," said Cypress Park activist Ramon Muniz.
Critics say Hernandez has not responded to their requests to do something about gang members who harass business owners, drink in public and race cars in the commercial area on North Broadway in Lincoln Heights. They say the final straw came in February, when a 16-year-old boy was shot to death on Broadway in what police say was a gang killing.
"I'm surprised more people haven't gotten killed here," said Bill Mirabal, owner of Mirabal Mortuary.
Some council colleagues say Hernandez has accomplished little because he lacks focus and has alienated them with his confrontational style.
In the campaign, Hernandez has stressed the need for continuity in leadership, saying that he has just begun to address the many problems of a district that was created from the troubled areas other council members did not want to represent.
In 1986, the council carved out the 1st District to create a Latino-majority district while protecting the 14 incumbents. A 1992 reconfiguration was based on the 1990 census.
The district stretches from Mt. Washington through Chinatown and into the heavily immigrant neighborhoods of Westlake and Pico-Union.
In many ways the 13-square-mile district is a microcosm of Los Angeles' political realities. Latinos make up about 70% of its 233,000 residents but only about 40% of its 36,804 registered voters.
In Pico-Union and Westlake, which were hit hard by last spring's riots, Hernandez is one of the few politicians who has spoken out on behalf of the area's large Central American population. He supports municipal voting rights for non-citizens who are in the country legally.
Some constituents contend that he has focused too much attention on the immigrant neighborhoods west of downtown while ignoring the established Mexican-American and Anglo communities in northeast Los Angeles, home to about 80% of the voters who supported him in the last election.
Hernandez responds that he was elected to represent all the district's residents, regardless of their citizenship status.
"Part of the problem in this city is that politicians just talk to the voters," Hernandez said. "And the city as a whole suffers because the issues involve everybody."
Long cites her experience as a City Hall aide.
"I feel like I can help the community with my years of experience working in city government," she said.
Durand said: "I don't have all the solutions, but I'm willing to work with people to come up with the answers."